Three years after Hirak, Algeria's opposition is struggling to survive

After Hirak, Algeria's opposition struggles to survive
6 min read
09 February, 2022
In-depth: As the third anniversary of the pro-democracy Hirak movement approaches, opposition groups are being targeted in a severe government crackdown, indicating a clear regression in political freedoms.

Increasing efforts by Algerian authorities to suspend opposition parties have drawn widespread anger from several other left-leaning political forces, who have been expressing concern for freedom and democracy.

On 20 January, the Council of State - Algeria’s highest administrative judicial authority - decreed the temporary suspension of the activities of the Socialist Workers' Party (PST) for not abiding by the legislation regulating the functioning of political parties, and for not organising a general conference in time to renew its leadership.

The PST, which actively participated in the Hirak movement that forced out long-serving President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was already threatened with the termination of its activities last year. At the time, it was calling for a mass boycott of the 12 June legislative elections, which were overwhelmingly rejected by the Algerian public in a vocal show of refusal to legitimise the regime.

In 2021, the Council of State dissolved two opposition parties, the Union for Democracy and the Algerian Democratic Front, also for not respecting the laws governing political parties. Furthermore, on 6 January, the secular party Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) received a formal notice from the Ministry of Interior requiring them to cease activities “contrary to the regulations” because it hosted political meetings for members of the opposition at its premises. 

"The regime is trying to quash all political and/or popular organisation that drove the Hirak, it wants to take vengeance on any group that has been advocating for systemic change and democracy"

It doesn’t end there. The Democratic and Social Movement (MDS) was also threatened with dissolution. The party’s spokesman Fethi Gares, who is close to Hirak, was sentenced last month to two years in prison on charges including insulting the president and spreading information that could harm national unity.

The Union for Change and Progress (UCP) is similarly under threat since the interior ministry filed a judiciary complaint in May 2021 to dissolve the party, for “non-conformity” of its actions with the law. Its president, Zoubida Assoul, has been a leading opposition figure and activist in the Hirak protest movement. 

Finally, the Algerian civil society organisation, the Youth Action Rally (RAJ), known for having played a proactive role in the protests of 2019 and 2020, was disbanded last October on the grounds that the organisation’s activities violated the law governing associations.  Several members of the RAJ were prosecuted and up to nine of them are imprisoned.

The government of Abdelmadjid Tebboune has been escalating its clampdown on left-wing parties, opposition groups, and civil society organisations in recent months, sending clear signs of the authorities’ determination to silence the opposition and anyone linked to the popular Hirak movement, and to suppress the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

Thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets across Algeria in February 2021 in support of the Hirak movement, but amid escalating political repression it is unclear how much momentum the movement holds today. [Getty]
Thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets across Algeria in February 2021 in support of the Hirak movement, but amid escalating political repression it is unclear how much momentum the movement holds today. [Getty]

“The Algerian regime has been making use of two levers to repress all forms of opposition: security forces and justice,” Abderrahmane Hayane, an Algerian film director and activist, told The New Arab. He continued that with the advent of the Hirak, the ruling system moved to put into place “a counter-revolutionary process” to finish the movement.

“The regime is trying to quash all political and/or popular organisation that drove the Hirak, it wants to take vengeance on any group that has been advocating for systemic change and democracy,” Algerian political activist Oualid Nekiche told The New Arab.

This intent to choke pro-democracy forces is particularly noticeable just weeks ahead of the commemoration of the 3-year anniversary of the anti-government Hirak movement - launched on 22 February 2019 - as “Le Pouvoir” (“The Power”), the colloquial name for the regime, takes steps towards a full authoritarian takeover of political life to prevent any type of independent expression.

Salsabil Chellali, Algeria researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), pointed out that the regime’s crackdown on Algerian opposition has been made possible by its own progressive weakening well before the emergence of the Hirak.

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“It’s an opposition that’s been long divided and debilitated,” the HRW’s researcher told The New Arab. “But what’s noteworthy is how the regime today is endeavouring to sweep away the last remaining political parties and civil organisations associated with the Hirak,” she continued.

Chellali raised some aspects of great concern in the recent surge of repression; the authorities’ recourse to terrorism charges to prosecute peaceful activists and critical voices, their abusive use of pre-trial detentions, and the widespread use of the personal data of targeted critics.

Hayane, who’s a member of the Ibtykar citizen and political movement, remarked that the group is experiencing difficulties staying operative, and is now having to take routine precautions like communicating via encrypted messaging and running online meetings. He underscored that the inability to hold any political activity in the public sphere is the most critical issue faced by opposition parties.

“What’s left of the opposition in the country, that hasn’t been either imprisoned or silenced or disbanded, operates in a semi-clandestine state,” the centre-left activist said. “Any kind of militant activity in Algeria can get you arrested, or take you before a judge or prosecutor,” he added.

"What's left of the opposition in the country, that hasn't been either imprisoned or silenced or disbanded, operates in a semi-clandestine state"

Nekiche explained that in the current political climate, except for the satellite parties gravitating around the regime, practically every party is at risk. He specified that the very existence of the democratic camp has been in danger since the North African nation’s independence from France.

Political activists, human rights defenders, and journalists are arrested at increasingly alarming rates. Some are detained for a few days as a form of intimidation, others incarcerated for months before any trial. Some 300 people are currently behind bars in Algeria due to their links to the Hirak, based on estimates by the National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees (CNLD) rights group.

On 28 January, 40 of these prisoners of conscience kicked off an open hunger strike in the El-Harrach prison in Algiers to denounce their arbitrary detention and the false charges against them, such as for terrorism-related offences, including under Article 87bis, which carries the death penalty.

The action coincides with the 64th anniversary of the 8-day strike in 1957 when the National Liberation Front (FLN) revolutionary group called for a general strike nationwide to defy the French colonial administration during the Algerian War.

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In the face of the ongoing repression campaign by Algerian authorities, the opposition is fighting to exist, refusing to accept the country’s current political process.

The long-running Hirak movement, for its part, does not have the ability to mobilise large masses today. “The main problem is that after Bouteflika’s departure the opposition didn’t form a counter-power capable of rolling out a political alternative to the system in power,” Nekiche argued.

Hayane similarly blamed the Hirak’s failure to put forth a political offer thus allowing The Power to make its comeback in full force. “The movement needs to structure itself, organise and advance a credible and alternative proposal,” the activist maintained.

On the other hand, he highlighted that the popular movement is by no means gone and its spirit remains “embedded” in the hearts and minds of the Algerian people.

“The Hirak is not just a movement, it’s fundamentally a statement. It’s a means through which Algerians voice their aspirations for freedom and democracy, their desire for an overhaul of the political system.”

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec